Ambiguity and [Un]healthy Sexuality in the World and in the Church [4]


While the World’s sexuality belongs properly to hell, the Church is too often caused to lift up its eyes in torment because of sexual guilt. If sexuality’s main effect in one’s consciousness is to cause guilt, it is not healthy, albeit still preferable to the drunken sexuality that is past feeling the tug of morality.

I have previously defined the Church broadly enough to encompass any religion that recognizes that God rightfully regulates human sexuality, and I assume that the experience of the practitioners of other religions is comparable. But I do not actually know that, and for the remainder of this essay, the Church will refer more specifically to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where I know from personal experience and by report that the problems I identify are not uncommon. I will designate this as the (lower case “c”) church.

The prevalence of excessive sexual guilt is understandable, especially given the toxic cultural environment in which the church operates, where sexual desire is intentionally and incessantly stimulated by advertisers, media, and peers alike. Lucretius once theorized that the male sexual response to the visual stimulus of female bodies is a strictly automatic, glandular event. While I can positively affirm that this oversimplifies the matter, I see where he was coming from. It is perhaps strictly impossible for most men to avoid being attuned to the sexual. It is interesting as well as fraught—an object of curiosity as well as desire. While a man may be enabled to choose a chaste response to a beautiful woman immodestly advertising her availability, he cannot choose indifference. And yet those who align with the church are taught that they must not intentionally stimulate or condone the intentional stimulation of sexual feelings in their own bodies or those of anyone else except within marriage—and even then only when it edifies. Anything outside this context violates the law of chastity. “He who looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” The result is that any sexual impulse and any conscious expression of sexuality is immediately regarded as sinful–and this, for fundamentally sexual beings, is a recipe for guilt.

I believe the female experience is similar—only for women, while visual stimuli may be somewhat less compelling, other stimuli are equally powerful, and the guilt for any perceived violation of the law of chastity is compounded by the fact that women are supposed to be relatively above such vices by nature. (This of course is a strictly non-doctrinal, culturally dictated perception, and I am agnostic as to its truth.)

This situation is not entirely negative. Where a fallen nature’s recognition of its fallenness impells it to reach for grace, it will find it. The near impossibility of strictly and fully governing our sexuality is a constant reminder of our fallenness. If our consistent response were to reach for grace, I might almost conclude that the possession of this frequent reminder was entirely positive–but to reach for grace is not a natural response, and it takes a lot of faith–or, in other words, deliberate God-ward effort.

The natural response to a sexual impulse is to indulge the impulse. The natural response to having indulged an evil impulse is to rationalize and self-justify. This is where the spiritual tug-of-war between the Accuser and the Advocate begins. The Accuser gives inconsistent messages, depending on his audience–and as often as not he gives inconsistent messages in the same breath. The Accuser is all for rationalization and self-justification: the ideal scenario from the Accuser’s perspective is that all of God’s messengers are rejected without serious thought–conscience, dismissed as a culturally conditioned invalid response to pleasure; prophets, dismissed as old fashioned white men; correct traditions, dismissed as judgmental yokes; the beckoning of secure family joy dismissed as fairy tale nonsense; the ideals of temperance and restraint, dismissed as invalid external restraint–until the sinner is brought to God’s own throne where self-deception is no longer possible. Until that moment, the Accuser presents himself as the Advocate and God as the Accuser. But at that moment, he turns on his servants and assumes his true role—he, the internalized voice of evil within them, which now shrieks and shrinks away full of terror and loathing, seeking a return to darkness and evil, now recognized as such, where it insists they belong, and where God’s final judgment is forced to mournfully concur that now, after lifetimes of self-deception, they do in fact belong.

This is the end towards which the World’s sexuality tends whenever it insists dogmatically that there is nothing wrong with viewing pornography or masturbating or dressing immodestly or telling crude sexual jokes or even committing adultery, provided of course that the betrayed spouse is less than ideal and the adulterers “love” each other.

But if the Accuser cannot get the sinner to rationalize and self-justify, he changes his tactic and tries to get the sinner to wallow in self-loathing and hide his evil instead of bringing it, penitent and brokenhearted, to God’s altar. This is the church’s characteristic ailment, dramatised profoundly in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This is a false penitence of self-loathing and excessive guilt, in which the Accuser purports to speak with God’s voice, truthfully condemning the sin in order to falsely damn the sinner.

Escaping from this shrinking self-loathing requires the courage to confess the sin. But there is much the church can do both to make confession easier and to render the Accuser’s deceitful and depressing condemnation less plausible. Excessive guilt and self-loathing is always going to be a possible destination as soon as any moral authority is admitted, but the church could add much more signage along that path directing sinners back to grace.

While I defer to the anointed leaders of the church, in my view the church should:

  • Teach the law of chastity more accurately and always in the context of marriage and parenthood.

Sex is good in its proper context—both for joy and pleasure and expressing love within marriage and for procreation within marriage. The commandment to multiply is still in effect—and our posterity are intended to be a mainspring of joy and rejoicing. This teaching fosters an imaginative reconnection of sexual desire and its natural goal. 

Church leaders teach all of this, but the youth have a hard time feeling that the ultimate goodness of sexuality has any current application. They know very well that sex is desirable, but they (or at least many of them) experience the desire only as bad, because they are unmarried and therefore, they feel, entirely removed from the only proper context for any sexual experience.

That perception needs to be challenged. Marriage is the only proper context for sex, but not the only proper context for sexuality. Pre-marital sexual development and sexual experiences should be taught and understood in the  context of preparation for marriage and children–whether the sexual experience is sinless (such as wet dreams or sexual attraction) or sinful. Everyone in the church is either trying or preparing to be faithful in marriage, and perhaps nobody fully succeeds. That is not to say that adultery is irresistible—it isn’t—but that the chivalrous ideal of complete and constant fidelity in our affections and imaginations is so far from natural that the noblest among us can only approximate the ideal in our words and behavior. No premarital or marital regimen of abstinence, kindness, and self-sacrifice is too exacting—none is even exacting enough—to prepare a mortal human to fully embody a godly marriage. That consummation must await heaven.

Pre-marital and marital chastity are therefore actually very similar: there are permitted and forbidden expressions of sexuality at both stages, and chastity consists fundamentally in faithfulness to a present or future spouse and children, the existence of whom, in at least the next life, is guaranteed by God’s promises (according to one of the church’s most unique doctrines). Repentance (a hope-filled “turning again” or “re-turn” to faithfulness) is the proper response to every unchaste impulse–and those impulses are likely to be strong and frequent both before and after marriage. Therefore, when Jesus teaches that “he who looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart,” the teaching applies regardless of the current marital status of the looker or the looked upon, both of whom, after all, are, on condition of faithfulness, promised a future spouse (if unmarried) and posterity as the stars of heaven for number. The teaching about committing adultery in one’s heart applies to set the standard impossibly high–not to cause despair but to raise our eyes to what will someday be possible when we are “perfect, even as [our] Father in heaven is perfect.” Meanwhile, the closest we can come is to “re-turn” as quickly as we are able, without excessive guilt, until seventy times seven, pressing on towards the high calling in Christ.

I have said that there are permitted and forbidden expressions of sexuality both before and after marriage, and I think this is an important and overlooked truth. Most teenagers in the church do not understand that there are permitted expressions of sexuality before marriage. But we are sexual beings. Our sexuality will inevitably express itself, and it is neither required nor requisite that the expression consist solely of self-denial. Is sexuality not expressed in asking an attractive girl on a date in part because she is attractive? It is not expressed on the dance floor, however modest the attire and however proper the dance moves? Indeed, is not modesty itself a mode of sexual expression?–of a sexuality recognized but not advertised? Is sexuality not daily expressed in the body and mind through a multitude of events, from wet dreams and menstruation to locked bathroom doors and choices of underwear and outerwear, to say nothing of the thousand small agitations of the nerves that occur, even setting aside our pornographic cultural context, whenever the sexuality of ourselves or others finds expression within our notice–by public displays of affection or desire, by a beautiful face or a bewitching waist, by romantic song and story. All of these things express our sexual natures in ways that are (if handled faithfully) entirely permitted and even sometimes beautiful and enjoyable–and I believe it will be very helpful to the youth and the other unmarried individuals if we can teach that these are all permitted expressions of pre-marital sexuality that may be innocently enjoyed (to the extent they are enjoyable without intentionally stimulating sexual feelings) and whose larger purpose is to prepare us for and impel us into marriage not by the repression of sexuality but by its very vigor being at once encouraged and trained to faithfulness like a stallion to the bridle or a vine to a trellise. And when marriage does happen, certain behaviors will switch from “forbidden” to “permitted with spouse” while other behaviors will switch from “permitted” to “forbidden” without fundamentally altering the nature of chastity

Regardless of marital status, our sexuality will assert itself more or less constantly, and those following the path of discipleship must restrain their stallions from most potential sources of stimulation both before and after marriage, for their pursuit would not tend towards forming and cherishing a spouse, a marriage, and a posterity. In illustration, consider that the fraction of people with whom a church member may have sexual intercourse is either zero or one over the total number of people, which is a numerically insignificant difference, albeit a very significant difference in practice. Abstinence is a skill whose usefulness does not diminish very much after marriage. Our challenge is to emphasize the proper ultimate ends of sexuality as beautiful and glorious and to persuade our youth and general membership that the intentional stimulation of sexual feelings not in service of those ends does in fact sabotage those ends together with the highest and most glorious possibilities of our natures. 

  • Relatedly, focus on Zion-building rather than self-mastery.

Heaven is not a place for spiritual body-builders. Self-mastery and chastity are not ends in themselves, as muscle mass appears to be for body-builders. We will not stand about posing and admiring each other’s virtues. Rather, we will be so busy serving each other and enjoying the heavenly sociality that we will perhaps not even notice virtue as such, just as the soccer player about to score a goal does not notice her muscles. Zion is our best approach to heaven while on earth, and it always lies heavenward relative to us: the path of discipleship passes to heaven by way of Zion. It can be defined for present purposes as a community built upon God’s love as shared with and through each member of the community. Muscles’ value is functional, and so is virtues’; both had better help to build Zion or they are missing their purpose. Indeed, perhaps the best definition of virtue may be those attributes that enable Zion. 

The law of chastity should not primarily be a “hold tight knuckles white” commandment whereby individuals screw their self-control to the sticking point in order to master their natural desires for self-mastery’s sake. There is certainly plenty of scope for self-control, but the primary thing is keeping sexuality in proper relationship to self and others so that it is not undermining Zion. It is about relational rectitude. Chastity does not mean desires overcome half so much as a rigorously upheld honesty and kindness towards each other and reverence towards God. Sex without marriage undermines Zion because it defies God’s commandment that the intimacy and vulnerability that sex entails should be guarded by a socially acknowledged commitment to honor that intimacy and protect that vulnerability, caring for the spouse and any child who may be born to the marriage. And while I can see the social acknowledgment of the commitment in a marriage rite being considered optional by those who do not believe God has commanded any such thing, the honoring of the intimacy and the protection of the vulnerability are necessary within any coherent moral system that I can imagine. Unbelievers should therefore be able to appreciate chastity, in its true sense, as a necessary expression of honesty and kindness within relationships. Zion is the goal of chastity–Zion within marriage and Zion within the church. That positive end, rather than the eschewing of desire, should be our main focus. Ours is not an ascetic religion. God creates wine for the marriage feast at Cana, and he blesses the wedding bed with joy and beauty. To the extent that we sometimes turn our attention to the negative things we must avoid, let us be clear that pleasure is a good thing in itself, and that it is only the inherent violence and irreverence of sex without care and commitment that renders the pursuit of pleasure outside the ordained context evil. If our youth believe that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is in itself evil, and resist it directly rather than by reference to Zion, then I fear they will be fighting a losing battle–for their spirits and bodies alike know better. We must therefore help them connect the dots, so that they can appreciate how the pursuit of a thing that in itself is good and glorious within its proper context may, outside that context, cause great destruction and form patterns in the mind and in society that undermine Zion.

  • Clarify that sexual sin is not categorically the third most serious sin after murder and denying the Holy Ghost.

There is a widespread belief in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that sexual sin is categorically next to murder in seriousness. This belief seems to me entirely absurd if taken to mean that a middle schooler’s lustful glance at a classmate’s blooming bosoms is nearly as bad as plunging a dagger in the same place. Patently, that is not true. Now, I can respect an apparently absurd belief if the belief is truly mandated by a source that, for other reasons, one accepts as authoritative. That is perhaps a kind of Abrahamic test–but we should not be too quick to sacrifice our sons, and we should not accept an apparently absurd belief unless it is inescapably mandated by God’s authority. Reason and intuition have essential roles to play in exegesis, and God expects us to make good use of the interpretive tools he has provided–to wrestle with the scriptures until we, like our father Israel, obtain God’s blessing, and not merely to accept them slavishly at face value.

The clear source of the church’s belief that sexual sin is categorically next to murder is Alma 39:3-5:

3 And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel.

4 Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.

5 Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?

There is substantial ambiguity about what Alma means by “these things.” But if Alma had meant a single sin (i.e., the sexual one), one would expect the phrase “this thing.” Alma evidently uses “these things” because Corianton’s actions involved multiple sinful aspects: deserting his ministry, betraying his nation’s interests, foreseeably making himself a stumbling block for recipients of the gospel message, and “going after” a harlot. While it seems probable that Corianton attained his desire and that “going after” is used euphemistically, it is not even entirely clear from the text whether Corianton had sex with the harlot. What is clear is that the Zoramites were poised to ally with the Lamanites (Alma 31:4), and this was the immediate motive for the proselytizing mission to reclaim their souls and their allegiance and thereby prevent a war. While assisting his father in this mission, Corianton left his post and deliberately hiked a significant distance into the borderlands between Zarahemla and the Lamanites in pursuit of a harlot. Even the Zoramites, wildly disoriented with respect to God’s commandments, recognized Corianton’s behavior as bad, or at least as hypocritical, because his behavior caused them to disbelieve Alma (Alma 39:11). Now, without minimizing the seriousness of whoring, the flagrant dereliction of duty involved in deserting a post and endangering a mission under such precarious national circumstances is the kind of thing that very properly gets soldiers summarily shot. His desertion risked a war!–dozens of blood-soaked fields on each of which a thousand happy homes would be, in the space of an hour, converted into weeping hungry fatherless families. And of course a single soul’s salvation would be worth any number of mortal lives, yet he risked the salvation of souls as well by discrediting his fellow servants and his ministry. And all of this immense recklessness was in pursuit of a sexual urge. Surely “these things” refers not so much to the sexual urge itself as to the terrible risk Corianton took in pursuit of the urge. Surely the gravest evil was not the bad item purchased but the acceptance of such a terrible price. To accept such a bargain might well be compared to murder.

The youth who merely views pornography or masturbates has not done anything comparable to what Corianton did, serious as the Zion-wrecking consequences of these sins may be. The Book of Mormon does not teach that their sin is next to murder–and to the extent that the church has misapplied this scripture to apply categorically to sexual sin, the church should in my opinion repent. It has failed to wrestle with the scripture. Let us use a little common sense and a little moral intuition and reject any categorical judgment that would hold a teenager’s occasional guilt-ridden, semi-involuntary masturbation and Corianton’s traitorous whoredom equally blameworthy. It may well be that there was a hair’s breadth between Corianton’s sin and murder; the teenager’s sin is miles from murder. Any number of non-sexual sins fall between the teenager’s sin and murder on the continuum of seriousness. As one example, dealing drugs to fellow teenagers is, according to my moral intuition, very clearly more serious than masturbation and less serious than murder. So is perjury to obtain a false conviction. And I believe that church discipline would very properly treat these sins far more seriously than masturbation, suggesting that my moral intuition is correct. If it is, then we should not teach our youth that sexual sin is categorically next to murder in seriousness–for the teaching is not only incorrect but harmful, contributing to an exaggerated sense of dirtiness that in turn tends to generate self-loathing and hopelessness.

  • Acknowledge the difficulty in recognizing the line between sinless and sinful sexuality.

It is not sinful to experience sexual attraction. Sexual attraction is part of what leads to marriage and posterity and it is absolutely a part of our natures, formed in the image of Elohim (“the gods”). But where is the line between feeling sexually attracted and “looking upon a woman to lust after her”? There is a difference: to lust is to give one’s imagination over to wishing for that which would be violent, ugly, or dishonest, usually pretending that it would not be, while sexual attraction without lust acknowledges desire by such things as are proper and honest and kind within the relationship as it exists, such as seeking out conversation, giving a compliment, or asking someone on a date–or, most often, just moving along. But the innocent experience can easily slip into lust, and it does so by subtle degrees. Because of this, our perfectionistic youth and membership will tend to lump all experiences of sexual attraction in the “sinful” category while the permissive ones will tend to excuse lust because there is nothing wrong with sexual attraction. We can mitigate this by acknowledging the subtlety of the continuum between innocent sexuality and lust while teaching that there is a difference. And so also with other aspects of sexuality such as the natural and inevitable stimulations and arousals that can shift imperceptibly into the territory of masturbation. Perhaps the question bishops should ask is not whether the youth and adults are struggling with these temptations–they are–but how they respond when the shift from sinless to sinful sexuality begins. 

  • Practice greater frankness in sexual matters.

It may be that not speaking of sexual matters was a strategy that made sense once upon a time. It may be that the shock of wedding nights to all those 19th century women was less damaging than would have been an early knowledge of sexual things with no immediate application, secret and unspeakable, especially if the parents or other source of the knowledge could not convey it without conveying with the knowledge a sense of shame. But today, where almost every member of society is almost constantly exposed to shameless sexuality, most of which misrepresents the realities of sex, silence will not do. Inaccurate representations must be fought with accurate representations. All of our own children know how a baby is made, and we keep the topic open (if you’re interested, this is how the four-year old understands it: daddy’s penis puts a “half-seed” into mommy’s vagina, where it goes up to the yoot-ah-rus and meets another “half-seed.” If the two little seeds go together, the whole full seed sits in a little blood nest and the baby starts growing. If they don’t meet together, the blood nest goes into the toilet on mommy’s bleeding time and they try again later.)

  • Avoid sexualizing anything not inherently sexual or defining as sinful anything that is potentially innocent.

Going into public intentionally dressed so as to invite and reward sexual attention is inherently sexual and wrong. By contrast, wearing leggings in public is no longer inherently sexual or wrong in contemporary culture even though it would have been so in 1950 for anyone fluent in the language of dress as it existed at that time. Sometimes lines must be drawn–at the knees, for instance–but any line-drawing will inevitably have the effect of sexualizing whatever crosses the line. There is a delicate balance to be struck between providing clarity and defining behaviors as provocative, immodest, or sinful and thereby making them far more so than they were in themselves, if at all. 

The final post, Part 5, summarizes and ties together the prior posts.

One thought on “Ambiguity and [Un]healthy Sexuality in the World and in the Church [4]

  1. “Where a fallen nature’s recognition of its fallenness impells it to reach for grace, it will find it.” Amazing line.

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